Wild Side: Cooper’s hawks

Keep an eye out for this skilled hunter.

The female Cooper’s hawk is currently hanging around our neighborhood in Oak Bluffs. — Matt Pelikan

Cooper’s hawks are good-sized birds, distinctly smaller than a red-tailed hawk but about the size of a crow. Compared to either of those familiar species, though, a Cooper’s hawk creates a distinctly different impression — lanky, long-tailed, and somehow loose-jointed. Cooper’s hawks spend much less time soaring than red-tails do, though the smaller hawk is perfectly capable of riding a thermal up until the bird is just a pin-point. But in level flight, a Cooper’s hawk is much more businesslike than either of those other species, zipping along without the dallying of a crow or the slow, lumbering wingbeats of a red-tail.

If you get a decent look, the only thing you can confuse a Cooper’s hawk with is its smaller relative, the sharp-shinned hawk. The two raptors come close to overlapping in size: A small male Cooper’s is just a hair larger than a big female sharp-shin. But ornithologists assure that Cooper’s is reliably, if sometimes just marginally, larger. Sharpies are also more compact in build, flying with a distinctive, wrist-flicking wing stroke that is quite different from a Cooper’s deep wing beats that seem to move only the shoulder joint. Sharp-shins do not nest on the Vineyard, so confusing these species is not an issue in the summer. And in recent years, at any season, sharpies have averaged somewhat less common than Cooper’s hawks.

Getting that decent look at a Cooper’s hawk is by no means a given. To be sure, the species sometimes sits tamely on a perch, often allowing a fairly close approach. And while patrolling or traveling, a Cooper’s hawk may interrupt its generally direct flight with loops or swoops to check out a promising thicket. But the classic sighting of a Cooper’s hawk, every time you experience it, will remind you why these are such effective hunters.

The arrival of a Cooper’s hawk may be heralded by a sudden, eerie silence if other bird species have been vocalizing; with sharper vision than you, and a lot more reason to stay alert, songbirds often detect an incoming Cooper’s hawk and dive for cover. To more obtuse human senses, a Cooper’s hawk often materializes as a dark, elongate streak, moving faster than seems quite believable just above the prevailing level of the vegetation. A moment and a few sharp turns later, the agile hunter disappears from site.

Unless it spots an opportunity. The point (from the hawk’s perspective) of this darting, low flight is to startle a smaller bird into a panicked take-off. The hawk is constantly looking for precisely this, and when a surprised sparrow or chickadee pops up, the hawk carves as steep a turn as is needed to get the smaller bird into the crosshairs. As often as not, it connects, its powerful talons snagging the smaller bird in mid-flight.

It would be hard to overstate the importance of this low-level hunting strategy to a Cooper’s hawk, or to exaggerate the adaption these hawks show to their preferred method of assassination. Cooper’s hawks, if they remain in an area for any length of time, rapidly acquire a detailed “resource map,” pinpointing thickets, water sources, feeding stations, and other locations where a concentration of food or shelter produces a concentration of songbirds. A Cooper’s-in-residence rapidly develops a daily route around its hunting territory, often working each hotspot on a regular schedule. Buzzing each likely spot, the raptor is almost certain to get a few chances to score.

It isn’t just this astuteness that makes these birds effective, though. Cooper’s hawks, like all raptors, have astonishingly sharp vision, and lightning reflexes to go with it. And the hawk’s long tail — really a rudder — and short, strong wings translate to an unbelievable ability to maneuver sharply. I’m sure it’s impossible, under the laws of physics and aerodynamics, but I get the impression that a Cooper’s hawk, even at full attack speed, can reverse direction in barely more than its own body length. The tail twists, one wing goes up and the other goes down, and instantly the hawk is on a new heading.

Our local Cooper’s hawk has been spending lots of time lately perched in a tall catalpa tree across the street. The perch overlooks the neighbors’ aviary: The chickens and ducks there are safely enclosed, but clearly the Cooper’s hawk remains optimistic (these hawks, with justification, are sometimes known as “chicken hawks,” and the fact that a chicken may outweigh the hawk doesn’t deter the raptor one bit).

After a while, concluding that domestic fowl is once again not on the menu for the day, the hawk drops out of the catalpa tree and darts off to patrol the rest of its route. There are pigeons around, and house sparrows, and chickadees. And every day, two or three of those smaller birds will find itself in the talons of this proficient aerial hunter.



  1. The 200+ year old grandfather oak in our yard makes a fabulous stand for raptors. Coopers, Red Tails, occasional Osprey, and others, frequent the tree.
    The trees here had been covered with English Ivy, which we were able to deter. As a result of the ivy, grandfather oak’s lower branches needed to be expertly trimmed over the course of 4 years. This made it all the better for birds of prey.
    We throw feed out for birds, near cover of thickets and brush. Astounding dramas unfold outback, even with precautions. Sometimes there are aerial battles, with a raptor and crows, over the raptor’s catch.
    There has been massive clear cutting in this neighborhood, the IHT housing project, a development, private lots. Most are professionally landscaped and maintained meticulously, by landscape companies with leaf blowers. (Pollinator death squads)
    It has been an expense to care for the trees in this yard, though we have learned from the tree care company. The unending cost of a landscaper, and the loss of wildlife, is surely a greater expense. But your shoes probably stay cleaner.

    • Michele: You touched on a subject that has become a concern for me, the gas powered leaf blowers used by landscape contractors on the island. My research informs me that there really is no good reason to use these tools except to save time for the employee and/or employer. Money and time are the bottom lines but in this instance, to our peril. Of course we all need to make a living but can’t we do something to end the use of these obnoxiously loud tools? Spend a few minutes researching the pros and cons of leaf blowers and you won’t find anything beneficial. The noise and air pollution are readily understood but the destruction to microbes living underneath the decaying leaves that need the nutrients and protection this layer provides is the most costly in terms of garden quality, our health and the wallet. The idea that we spend all this time and money removing nature’s mulch only to spend more time and money to replenish it with chemical fertilizers should be seen for the outdated and hazardous practice that it is. We all know the time is here for each of us to do what she/he can to make our environment safer. It occurred to me this summer, I remember having dead bugs on my car windshield in the summers. I haven’t seen any for a disturbingly long time. And I don’t think I saw any fireflies this year. What are we doing?? Please, let’s start a conversation about this issue. In the meantime, use your rake to mulch your shrubs, trees and garden beds and mow the rest into the lawn.

    • Wonderful article Matt, Thank you so much! We Love reading all of them. I could visualize most everything you wrote. We also have had Coopers and Red Tail hawks hanging around our trees and bird feeders. They are so beautiful, I try not to focus on what their intentions are. I also would like to comment on the Leaf Blowers that have slowly and insidiously invaded our neighborhoods doing great damage to our ecosystem.The noise is definitely horrific, the loss of beautiful butterfly, moth, ladybug and bird eggs and other important wild creatures is irreplacable and check out what is stirred up in the air. From the “Canadian Audiologist” report “Many people do not think of other air pollutants that are just as bad as gasoline. Air from a blower travels at 200 km per hour and pulverizes what it hits into very fine dust, finer than is found in nature. Think what the air comes in contact with on the ground (soil, manure, fertilizer, pesticide residue, moulds, animal excrement. There are all kinds of toxins in street dust: dust from brake linings (asbestos is still used), grease and oil and the most common is carbon black from tire wear which is also a carcinogen. The problem with street dust is it can stay airborne for days. Much of this dust is so fine (less than 10 microns), it gets past the protective cilia in your airway and passes into your lungs, some very fine particles can get into your bloodstream through the lungs. Some health authorities in California claim dust is a worse health risk than fuel emissions.” This is why the American Pediatric Association of New York and many others have banned them. We hope that everyone will do some research and find out the dangerous and toxic nature of these polluting machines.

  2. Really neat information on Cooper’s Hawks. Thank you. I just saw one today in my Toronto back yard, coincidentally. Matt Pelikan wrote a piece in 2015 about a Baltimore Oriole that was wintering in Martha’s Vineyard and I’m wondering if he might be able to share whether that Oriole was seen again later in the winter. We’ve got an Oriole wintering here in my Toronto yard, and we know of another in Barrie, Ontario. We’re doing our best to keep them well fed and wonder how other wintering Orioles have fared.

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